Dark Carnival Extended: “The Watchers”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Watchers” (1945)

Bradbury’s narrator, Steve, works as personal secretary to William Tinsley, a captain of the kitchenware industry who wields a “flyswatter as scepter.” Tinsley is strangely obsessed with killing any and every insect in his midst. His pesticidal mania doesn’t stem from a basic phobia; he believes that insects (all living animals, in fact) are planted bugs, agents of surreptitious surveillance who report back to some mysterious governing force that Tinsley can only label “They.” Tinsley, who “refuses to talk when there’s an insect in the room,” intones to Steve: “We are being watched constantly. Is there ever a minute in our lives that passes without a fly buzzing in our room with us, or an ant crossing our path, or a flea on a dog, or a cat itself, or a beetle or a moth rushing through the dark, or a mosquito skirting around a netting?” The story offers another sinister turn of the screw when Tinsley realizes that there are more evil/infinitesimal entities to fear: microbes.

Opening a dark new window onto the everyday, “The Watchers” is quintessential Bradbury. Just as Steve is infected with Tinsley’s “apprehensive awareness,” the reader can’t help be haunted by the specter of the paranoid premise (Bug Brother is Watching Us!). The story is infested with disturbing visuals, such as the description of Tinsley’s father, who was accidentally(?) killed by his own gun in a hunting accident, and whose corpse was overrun when his young son returned with belated help: “The entire body, the arms, the legs, and the shattered contour of what was once a strong, handsome face, was clustered over and covered with scuttling, twitching insects, bugs, ants of every and all descriptions, drawn by the sweet odor of blood.” The imagery grows even more grotesque when Tinsley (and later, Steve) falls sudden victim to a “rotting fetid combination of disease.” Unsettling in idea and execution alike, “The Watchers” ranks as one of the most horrific pieces Bradbury ever composed. Perhaps the reason it wasn’t installed in the original edition of Dark Carnival (I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall if Bradbury ever articulated his rationale for the exclusion) is because its unremitting gruesomeness threatened to overshadow the rest of the collection’s contents.

 

Dark Carnival Extended: “The Poems”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Poems” (1945)

The poet David stumbles upon a strange ability to capture reality, a talent that extends far beyond the common conception of verisimilitude: “Somehow, David had caught up, netted, skeined, imbedded reality, substance, atoms–mounting them upon paper with a simple imprisonment of ink!” His poetry proves “too perfect”–it actually erases from existence what it describes, leaving nothing but an “unnatural blank-spaced silence.” Basking in the glow of his meteoric rise (literary critics hail him as “the greatest poet who ever lived”), the hubristic David ultimately precipitates his own downfall. Like some mad scientist, he begins to experiment with dogs and cats, sheep and even people as the subjects of his poetry. But when David proclaims his intention to write about the universe itself (“I’ll dissect the heavens if I wish, rip down the worlds, toy with suns if I damn please!”), his horrified wife Lisa takes clandestine yet drastic steps to dissolve their marriage.

Leave it to a creative genius like Bradbury to think up such a story about the wonders–and dangers–of the imagination. Appropriately, the image-rich prose here (“The paper was a square, brilliantly sunlit casement through which one might lean into another and brighter amber land”) approaches the quality of poetry. In its concerns with the uncanny power of inking, the story also prefigures the classic tale “The Illustrated Man.” “The Poems” is certainly dark enough in import; perhaps the only thing that makes it an imperfect fit with the contents of the original Dark Carnival collection is its predominantly vernal (rather than autumnal) vibe.

 

Dark Carnival Extended: “Bang! You’re Dead!”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“Bang! You’re Dead!” (1944)

Fair-haired Johnny Choir plays at war, running and laughing, ducking and dodging, pointing and yelling “Missed me!” and “Gotcha!” He’s unquestionably young at heart but maybe not quite right in the head: Bradbury’s twist is that Johnny is an actual U.S. soldier fighting in Italy during World War II. As his army buddy Private Smith says, “As far as I can figure, he thinks this is all a game. He never grew up. He’s got a big body with a kid’s mind in it. He doesn’t take war serious. He thinks we’re all playing at this.” Johnny’s strange outlook seems to work like a good luck charm, protecting him from enemy fire as he moves recklessly. This amazes the fear-gripped Smith, and bemuses another soldier named Melter, who eventually takes a shot at Johnny himself, then tries to tear through his mental armor by revealing that they are in fact fighting a war. Hurt by the news, Johnny stumbles off, and is soon wounded by a German artillery shell. He survives the head injury (which likely will wipe away the memory of Melter’s spoiler), and at tale’s end he (along with Smith) is scheduled to be discharged and sent home to America. The rotten Melter fares much worse, though, after desperately trying to mimic Johnny’s tactic: he ends up strafed with machine-gun fire while running down a hill “screaming about being a kid again.”

“Bang! You’re Dead!” proves quintessentially Bradburian in theme, contrasting the “innocent wonder” of youth and adult experience, vivid imagination and harsh reality. Johnny’s psychological defense mechanism–regressing himself to the playful days of his Midwestern youth–hints at the terrible, traumatic nature of war. Nevertheless, the story features an emphatically happy ending, which frees Johnny from military service and paves the way for him to “go on believing the world is a good place.” Perhaps this ultimate light-heartedness (contra the other stories in the table of contents) is exactly what dissuaded Bradbury from including the piece in the first edition of Dark Carnival.

 

Dark Carnival Extended: “The Sea Shell”

In a recently-concluded retrospective, I explored the contents of Dark Carnival (marking the 75th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s debut collection). And now tonight brings an addendum….The 2001 Gauntlet Press reissue of Dark Carnival offered bonus reading: a quartet of weird tales that Bradbury did not include in the 1947 edition. Over a series of four posts, I will look back at those stories, considering how they might have fit if chosen for the first publication of the book.

“The Sea Shell” (1944)

11-year-old Johnny Bishop, bedridden with an unspecified illness, “wants to get out and play, badly.” The frustration over his confinement is alleviated when the family doctor gifts him with the titular object (which seemingly sounds a call from the remote Pacific: “The ocean! The waves! The sea!”). Now, “whenever the afternoons stretched long and tiresome, he would press [the sea shell] around the lobe and rim of his year and vacation on a wind-blown peninsula far, far off.” The sea shell stirs the wanderlust of Johnny, a Midwesterner who only knows of the ocean through movies. Johnny’s mom chides him for his “impatience with everything in life. you must have things–right now–or else.” In response, Johnny reasons, “If I wait too long, I’ll be grown up, and then it won’t be any fun.” Apparently, Johnny decides not to wait until he gets over his sickness to get out of the house. Lured by “the singing chant of boatmen faintly drifting on a salt sea wind,” Johnny uses the sea shell as a magical portal to an actual seaside adventure.

“The Sea Shell” presents some distinctly carnivalesque imagery: Johnny’s bed quilt is described as “a red-blue circus banner,” and after Johnny’s bewildered mom finds him missing but hears (via the sea shell) him frolicking in the ocean, the bedroom whirls around her like “a bright swaying merry-go-round.” But the story isn’t terribly dark, playing out more as an offbeat fantasy tale (in which Johnny ends up in a happy place). For this reason, and because Bradbury did include a much darker tale (“The Emissary”) centered on an ill, bedridden child, “The Sea Shell” was perhaps wisely omitted from 1947’s Dark Carnival.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Next in Line”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here]

 

“The Next in Line” (1947)

Hemingway meets Poe in this narrative of a bickering tourist couple who encounter the macabre. A few days after the “Death Fiesta,” El Dia de Muerte, Marie and her husband Joseph visit the catacombs of a graveyard “in a small colonial Mexican town” (according to biographer Sam Weller, Bradbury drew from his own experiences while on a trip through Guanajuato, Mexico). Propped within the underground tomb are 115 mummies, desiccated corpses dug up from the earth and stood up in this postmortem holding cell when their poor relatives could no longer afford the annual rent on their graves. The resultant tableau is an “embarrassment of horror”: silent screams pour “from terror-yawned lips and dry tongues,” one former cataleptic mimes the agony of her premature burial, and a woman who died during childbirth has her stillborn infant wired to her wrist “like a little hungry doll.” Joseph, a photographer, takes the scene in stride (he considers publishing “an ironical [picture] book,” and even offers to buy one of the figures from the cemetery caretaker), but Marie is terribly frightened by the experience. She develops a morbid fixation with the mummies, to the point where even the sight of a plate of aligned enchiladas triggers dread. Her nervous concern takes its toll, prostrating her, and leading her to beg her husband not to let her body be relegated to the catacombs if she dies. But that appears to be exactly the tact taken by the ghoulish Joseph, who is last glimpsed driving back toward the U.S. border with the passenger seat conspicuously empty alongside him.

“The Next in Line” makes for a fitting end to Dark Carnival, as the mortality concerns that run thematically through the book’s contents are writ large here. Bradbury deftly conjoins the carnivalesque and the sepulchral, describing the mummies as standing “like the naked pipes of a vast derelict calliope, their mouths cut into frantic vents.” The narrative (closer in length to a novella than a short story) takes its time unfolding, not rushing toward some simple, grimly twisting climax of the E.C. variety. Richly (if hauntingly) atmospheric and rife with psychological complexity, “The Next in Line” displays the numerous talents of a writer poised to transcend the shudder pulps.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Cistern”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Cistern” (1947)

On a rainy afternoon, Anna stares dreamily out the front window and waxes fanciful about the titular receptacle: “A dead city, right here, right under our feet,” she tells her fellow-spinster sister Juliet. Anna imagines an experience of secrecy and childlike fun, “liv[ing] in the cistern and peek[ing] up at people through the slots and see[ing] them not see you.” She also envisions a pair of dead lovers residing in such underground abode, desiccate mummies reanimated each rainy season (“She told how the water rose and took the woman with it, unfolding her out and loosening her and standing her full upright in the cistern”) and sent floating out to sea in circumnavigation of the globe. Matters take a darker turn, though, when Anna suddenly insists that the dead man in the cistern is her old beau Frank (who’s “been gone for years, and certainly not down there,” Juliet tells her sister). Distraught, Anna weeps silently. Juliet dozes off, but wakes to the sounds of Anna fleeing outdoors and the cistern lid lifting and slamming down again.

“The Cistern” warrants multiple readings if only for its crafted ambiguity. Does Bradbury’s tale put more emphasis on uncanny rebirth (the lovers’ amazing resuscitation by the rainwaters) or tragic death (as the lonely, loveless, and mentally anguished Anna presumably drowns herself)? In its consideration of a fantastic underworld, the story anticipates the work of Tim Burton (e.g. Corpse Bride). But the macabre implications of the story also point to a certain Stephen King opus where the sewer system (not to mention the idea of floating corpses) proves much more sinister.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Man Upstairs”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Man Upstairs” (1947)

Eleven-year-old Douglas Spaulding is immediately unnerved when Mr. Koberman, a “tall strange man” with “cold gray eyes” rents a room at the boarding house run by Douglas’s grandparents. Koberman has an unfriendly demeanor, and a dark aura that seems to suck the color and warmth from the room. He also exhibits some curious behavioral quirks: the man has a strong aversion to silver (he tips in copper pennies and eats his meals with wooden utensils), is out all night and sleeps like the dead during the day. The enmity between Koberman and Douglas continues to grow, especially after the former frames Douglas for the breaking of a multicolored glass window (through which Douglas had been able to catch glimpse of Koberman’s true nature). Clever Douglas, though, gets the last laugh. Emulating the culinary efforts of his Grandma when she guts/stuffs a chicken, Douglas vivisects the resting Koberman (removing his weirdly-shaped, gelatinous organs) and fills the chest cavity of this inhuman, vampiric creature (who had been preying on local woman) with lethal silver dimes from Douglas’s piggy bank.

Like much of Bradbury’s fantastic fiction, “The Man Upstairs” is rooted in the author’s own childhood experiences (the colored glass window so integral to the plot here mirrors the one that captured a young Bradbury’s fancy). As a Douglas Spaulding story, “The Man Upstairs” (like “The Night” before it in Bradbury’s debut collection) clearly prefigures Dandelion Wine. With its mix of nostalgia and the macabre, it also links with From the Dust Returned, Bradbury’s expansion of Dark Carnival narratives such as “Homecoming” and Uncle Einar” (in which the author’s own beloved relatives are positively recast as Halloween monsters). Perhaps most intriguingly, the story (in which a young boy faces off against a sinister figure in human guise, a peripatetic predator who disruptively appears in the boy’s Midwestern hometown) anticipates Something Wicked This Way Comes. A terrifically imaginative and blackly humorous piece in its own right, “The Man Upstairs” is noteworthy as an early map of the shadowy paths Bradbury would travel down in future, classic works.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Dead Man”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Dead Man” (1945)

An eccentric layabout (with a tendency to stretch out in the gutter) claims decedent status for himself, insisting that he perished in the “flood that washed away my farm and all my stock and put me under water, like a chicken in a bucket.” Martin might not be deluded (as he has no detectable pulse, “can’t eat,” and gives off an “awful smell”) but is derided by the rest of the town. All except the mousy manicurist Miss Weldon, who appreciates Martin’s taciturn nature (vs. the “loud” and “mean” men inhabiting the barber shop where she works). Unwilling to buy into Martin’s morbidity, she tells him, “You’re dead for want of a good woman’s cooking, for loving, for living right.” The pair has a “quiet elopement,” but Martin’s mention of purchasing a “house out on the edge of town” turns unsettling when the townspeople belatedly realize he was talking about one of the tombs in Trinity Park Cemetery.

Much like its titular character, “The Dead Man” is an odd story, seemingly unsure of what it is exactly (a mordant tale with an E.C.-style climactic twist? an offbeat romance, in which two quirky characters find love?). As a kinder, gentler version of the walking dead, Odd Martin allows Bradbury to approach his predominant subject (and the book’s virtual leitmotif) from a not-quite-as-macabre angle. Still, the story seems an imperfect fit with the rest of Dark Carnival. To echo the decree of the young girl in the narrative who vetoes using Martin as a Halloween party prop: “Not scary enough.”

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “There Was an Old Woman”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“There Was an Old Woman” (1944)

The titular spinster, Aunt Tildy, runs an antique shop out of the front of her home, where she sits and rails against death. She refuses to “believe in it,” deeming it “ridiculous”: “it’s silly people live a couple years and are shoved like wet seeds in a hole; but nothin’ sprouts.” Despite her shunning of matters of mortality, Tildy succumbs when the Grim Reaper comes calling (in the guise of a “tall, dark” young man in a funereal suit). Most stories might climax here, but Bradbury is just getting warmed up: the feisty, lingering spirit of Tildy (with the help of her adopted daughter Emily) hurries to the mortuary to get her body back before the mortician rudely opens it up and empties it out. Like the concept of death itself, such treatment is an affront to Tildy: “I’m a maiden lady. My moles, birthmarks, scars, and other bric-a-brac, including the turn of my ankle, are my own secret.” After stubbornly persisting, and threatening to haunt the mortuary for two centuries, Tildy does regain possession of her body, which her spirit diligently rejoins: “She was two drops of matter fusing, water trying to seep into concrete. Slow to do. Hard. Like a butterfly trying to squirm back into a discarded husk of flinty chrysalis!” Thereafter, the long(er)-living Tildy has whopper of a tale to tell visitors to her home, and a body of evidence to back it up: “the long blue scar where the autopsy was neatly sewn back together.”

Here we have yet another Dark Carnival story primarily concerned with death. The raging against the dying of the light seems to be the attitude of not just the old woman but also of the author Bradbury (who, as a young boy, was formatively commanded to “Live forever!” by the magician Mr. Electrico during a carnival performance). Unlike Tildy, Bradbury never got to shuffle back into his mortal coil after passing away as a nonagenarian, but nonetheless achieved a measure of immortality through the age-defying body of fiction he left behind. “Not bad sewin’ for a man,” Tildy at tale’s end says of the autopsy-aborting mortician who closed her back up, and this same praise could be extended to Bradbury’s own fine handiwork as story crafter.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Night”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Night” (1946)

In the year 1927, an 8-year-old boy and his mother “are all alone at home in the warm darkness of summer.” Dad is at a lodge meeting, and the boy’s older brother Skipper, 12, is out playing with his friends. Matters turn worrisome when Skipper doesn’t come home on time. The mother and the boy venture out to look for him, and their search naturally gravitates toward the town-bisecting ravine, a “pit of jungled blackness” with “a dark sewer, rotten foliage, thick green odor.” It is a region where “civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.” The mother and the boy fear that Skipper might have tried to cut across the ravine and encountered “Tramps. Criminals. Darkness. Accident. Most of all-Death.” Just as the dread builds to a crescendo, though, Skipper appears with his friends, safe and sound. But the boy has been struck by “the essential impact of life’s loneliness,” and the incident has a significant effect on his outlook onto to the world.

Bradbury, somewhat unusually, writes the story in the second-person, perhaps to emphasize universality (“There are a million small towns like this all over the world,” he writes. “Each as dark, as lonely, each as removed, as full of shuddering and wonder.”). Perhaps the author was just trying to distance himself from a story rooted in autobiography (Bradbury would subsequently expand on this material in “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” and Dandelion Wine, both of which explicitly invoke the serial killer known as “The Lonely One”). The sinister ravine setting proves a prominent element of Bradbury’s Green Town milieu, and also prefigures the Barrens in Stephen King’s American Gothic opus, IT. Yes, “The Night” casts a long shadow, and none of its dark brilliance has dulled after seventy-five years.